by Judith Curry
Shakespeare’s writings are infused with with weather references, and even some that are arguably relevant to climate change. The insights, however, come from the academic debate surrounding the actual authorship of the Shakespearean opus.
Shakespeare’s best lines on weather and climate change
Thanks to Marianne Mitchell, an outstanding example is found in the tragedy of “King Lear.” A severe storm is the setting of dramatic discourse, Act III Scene II.
(Enter Lear and Fool)
Lear: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou all-shaking thunder
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Rumble thy bellyful! Split, fire! spout, rain.
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters
(Enter Kent): Since I was man,
Such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder,
Such groans of roaring wind and rain, I never
Remember to have heard; man’s nature cannot carry
The affliction nor the fear —
This is nature at its most fierce, used as metaphor for similarly stormy human relationships. Because weather so influences human affairs, it becomes a perfect foil for authors who write of human affairs.
JC comment: hurricanoes !!! what a fabulous word
From the asdendirectory.org:
openDemocracy asked Mark Rylance, actor and (now) former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, to identify passages from Shakespeare’s work that might be relevant to climate change. The passages that Rylance chose included King Lear Act 1, Scene 2:103,
‘These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects.’
Rylance also chose a quote from All’s Well that Ends Well Act 2, Scene 1:142
‘Great Floods have flown from simple sources’
and a quote from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 3, Scene 1:155
‘And with thy daring folly burn the world.’
JC comment: wow, that would make a perfect alarmist slogan.
And finally, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
… the spring, the summer,
The chilling autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world
By their increase, now knows not which is which. .
The motivation for this post comes from a post at willyshakes.com entitled “Reflections on the authorship controversy” (h/t Vaughan Pratt). The controversy is between the Shakespeareans (consensus) and the Oxfordians (skeptics/contrarians). The article is written by Irvin Leigh Matus. Matus (recently deceased) was a freelance (non academic) Shakespearean scholar.
There are some very interesting analogies to the climate debate, and some good insights. Some excerpts from Matus’ essay:
As I write, I have recently passed the fifteenth anniversary of the dank, chill day in February 1989, when I received a letter from the Shakespeare Authorship Roundtable, a Los Angeles area group made up of partisans of various Shakespeares (even the one from Stratford), inviting me to speak to its members. When I told readers at the Folger Shakespeare Library about this, many gently advised me, don’t do it! This was the opinion of a dozen scholars (“You will become the new Satan of the Oxfordians,” prophesied one) before I got to the first supportive one, who is not a Shakespearean. I took the advice of the latter; first, because it agreed with the advice I had been giving myself; second, because I always trust a man with a nicely twirled moustache.
JC comment: in the climate debate, the Shakespeare Authorship RoundTable might be analogous to the Heartland Conference, with Matus playing the role of Scott Denning.
The reaction of Folger scholars reflects a reason I was invited to speak to the Roundtablers. Academic Shakespeareans have dismissed the authorship controversy or shunned it completely; so of course they would not agree to speak on the subject, and especially not before a group of contras, a breed that has a reputation for being smart-alecky, rude, insulting. I am, however, an independent scholar with neither a peer reputation to defend nor a career to protect. They guessed right when they thought I might be willing to give a talk. But I have a hunch that when I was asked specifically to investigate controversialist scholarship itself, the Oxfordian brand in particular, they were also guessing that, like many of them, I would find it persuasive, convincing and authentic – that I would agree “the man from Stratford” cannot possibly have been the author. There they guessed wrong.
In the two months I spent among the members of the Roundtable, I was never made to feel in the least Satanic. Quite the contrary. Rather than smart-alecky, rude and insulting fanatics, I found myself in the company of warm and gracious people; our conversations were relaxed and cordial without a hint of rancor. This set the tone of my experience of the controversialists in the years since, with few exceptions. There are, as there are bound to be in any group, some lacking in etiquette; a few who are casebook examples of Churchill’s definition of the fanatic: “one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” They can be especially vexing in the age of the Internet, making madding use of its weapon of mass distraction, email. But for the rest, we at worst most agreeably disagreed.
What seems to confound many is that I am not persuaded by the scholarship that persuaded them the author cannot be “the Stratford man.” One such is a man who had energetically propounded the Oxfordian cause in a newspaper article. I had a conversation with him some months ago and toward the end he urged me several times to “keep an open mind.” I didn’t feel there was any point in suggesting that he might make an effort to do the same. There are no more passionate believers than those who have “seen the light” (and are perhaps blinded by it).
JC comment: a reminder to skeptics to be skeptical of your skepticism
My experiences with adherents to the cause of Oxford and other rival Shakespeares leave no doubt that they are intelligent people who are unquestionably honest and sincere. I realize that few have access to the resources necessary to do their own research, nor time enough to make good use of them if they did. They must then rely on the facts as they are presented to them in controversialist books and articles, which give every appearance of being well researched, fully and accurately documented scholarship.
Oxfordian scholars have shown a keen eye for finding flaws in Shakespeare scholarship. They scrutinize every document, every allusion, to see if each says precisely what orthodox interpreters say it says. But I know of only relatively few instances of similar skepticism and scrutiny being applied by controversialists to their own scholarship. Scholarship of a kind that is dismissed as conjectural when it is offered by a Shakespearean becomes “circumstantial evidence” when put into the service of the Earl of Oxford.
JC comment: the issue here is which side bears the burden of proof in this controversy, which is not a straighforward call in these debates.
In the same vein, the use of cautionary words and terms by Shakespeare’s scholars – such as, “perhaps” … “this suggests” … “it might be” – is portrayed by the Oxfordian scholar as a sign of inference and surmise, of conjecture and speculation. It may be true at times, but most of the time it is being frank with readers, telling them that the data tells us this much and no more, takes us this far and no farther. But from the Oxfordian point of view the standard for Shakespeare evidence is unequivocal “documentary proof” – nothing less will do.
JC comment: the demand for documentary proof by contrarians on a complex topic and/or one with substantial unknowns can work in a pernicious direction: motivating academic consensus and statements of high certainty when they are not justified.
On the other hand, in making the case for Oxford, cautions are thrown to the winds. In uncovering shortcomings and errors in orthodox scholarship they perform a valuable service. They are often on target in saying that the assumption of the author’s identity is a source for error. But setting the record straight is not their goal. It is, rather, finding flaws that may be used as a loom for reinterpreting, even reinventing, a given source or a specific topic, in order to weave another tale in the “greatest detective story there ever was.” Thus may the demand for absolute proof from Shakespeareans disguise the fact that Oxfordians do not offer factual evidence to the contrary; and thus may the assumptions of Shakespeareans be transmuted to serve the certainties of Oxfordians. For it should not go unmentioned that they also analyze data based on their assumption of who the author is.
JC comment: the Oxfordians seem analogous to the climate auditors.
Reading such scholarship makes me think of what an Oxfordian with a political bent wrote in a letter to me, “it doesn’t matter how right you are if you still lose the debate.” Said another in his preface to a scholarly paper, it is not his responsibility to prove his scholarship right, but that of critics to prove it wrong. More than once I have been told that errors of fact in one or another Oxfordian argument do not “invalidate” its conclusion. It is, to put it politely, remarkable that those who hold Shakespeare’s scholars to an absolute standard, apply a somewhat less rigid standard to themselves.
“Well,” a Shakespearean well might ask, “if their scholarship is so poor, why pay attention to it?” For one thing, it is important to remember that they do reveal sometimes significant problems with and errors in orthodox scholarship. In fact, orthodox scholarship may unwittingly be a source of Oxfordian data, or provide affirmation of it.
JC comment: This is a very important point
For another thing, a curious reader may be forgiven for wondering how bad Oxfordian scholarship can be. They are, after all, willing to do something Shakespeareans are loath to do: put their scholarship into the public arena.This openness not only advances their cause but, perhaps more importantly, also offers the public a chance to join in the discussion of a figure that has a distinct, personal place in their lives, while Shakespeareans shun them.
JC comments: the analogue here is the technical climate blogosphere
Many reasons have been given for the Shakespeareans’ refusal to engage in the discussion. What may be the most forthright is the one stated by Alfred Harbage in an article in Shakespeare Quarterly:
Picture us sheepishly dispersing if the wrong side won, filled with delicacies which should rightfully have been consumed on some other date!
In other words – what if they’re right! Or might it be, worse still: what if we’re wrong? I’ll propose something worse yet: what if they are wrong but a majority of the public is persuaded they are right? As one Shakespearean wrote to me, “most folks at the Folger [Shakespeare Library] admit, we’ve lost the public battle.” This remark jogged my memory, bringing to mind an essay by Richmond Crinkley, a former Director of Programs at the Folger (1969-73), upon the publication of The Mysterious William Shakespeare, which appeared in Shakespeare Quarterly (Winter 1985). Although a “contented agnostic Shakespearean” himself, Crinkley was indignant at the library’s refusal to allow Ogburn to do research there and helped secure his admission as a reader.
JC comment: this is why the defense of “consensus” is so ineffective with contrarians, and the kind of behavior that the climategate emails revealed.
His comment appropriate to the public battle is, “Orthodoxy has suffered … from its denunciatory response to anti-Stratfordianism…. it has missed the opportunity to fight for its position in the public media.” It is missing in action still, with only a handful of Shakespeareans actively involved in the controversy; only a few are from academe. Let’s be frank, “we” have barely joined in the battle. Most appear to be quite content with losing it.
JC comment: this jives very much with Randy Olson’s complaints about the climate science community.
There is another reason it is important. In the words of Henry V in his play, “There is some soul of goodness in things evil, / Would men observingly distill it out.” The goodness in controversialist literature is that it demands evidence be reassessed. Returning once more to the Chamber Account, we discover the doubts of orthodox scholars about its reliability are traceable to volume two of E. K. Chambers’ The Elizabethan Stage (page 194) – which was published in 1923. How many more times would his assumptions have been passed from scholar to scholar had not a controversialist forced attention to it? Of how many more documents might the same be said?
JC comment: this describes the appeal and importance of Steve McIntyre’s work.
In broader terms, the controversy offers opportunities to cast a fresh eye on things grown too familiar, things so basic that when we come upon them in reading the critical faculty is suspended. It also requires us to view a thing as seen through different eyes, from a different point of view, a different perspective. At times it may reanimate something once read in passing, sometimes something small but worthwhile, other times something larger and valuable, but that will in either case be a contribution to Shakespearean studies and scholarship. And then there are other times when it sets one off on an entire course of study, as it has me on many occasions.
JC comment: a good description of the mission of Climate Etc.
No matter how imaginative a Shakespeare biographer may be, it takes a heap of imagination to imagine a Shakespeare. However, the failure of modern biographies is not due to a lack of imagination merely. It lies in what Brian Vickers termed the “self-contained enclave” of “specialists in Shakespearian and Elizabethan drama,” whose studies are “cut off even from broader studies of Renaissance literature and history.” Taking this a step further in biography, Shakespeare is cut off not only from Elizabethan drama but from contemporary dramatists and from the broader world of the theater as well. His is a life devoid of a context.
JC comment: The “self contained enclave” is a very common and relevant criticism of the climate establishment, particularly the IPCC, cut off from the broader examination of natural climate variability.
This points to the most important reason for addressing the controversy, one that academic scholars may find most distasteful: putting their scholarship into the public intellectual marketplace. But unless a student’s doctoral thesis is of a kind that allows admission to Shakespeare studies in academe, the student-no-more has no place in, no right to join in, the discussion of Shakespeare. In this climate, the idea of coming (no less going) face to face with fierce controversialists seems especially unappealing.
Many have told me their questions are ones they have long wanted to ask or have waited to hear addressed. I have encountered many more such people than those who are interested or involved in the controversy. Their questions are often good ones, a surprising number of which have led me to something useful – even, on occasion, important.
JC comment: I find it very interesting that an “extended peer community” has developed around this topic, motivated by public interest in the historical and cultural issues associated with Shakespeare. Extended peer community is a concept that has been applied to policy relevant issues, but here we see evidence of a broader type of interest that can motivate such communites.
The silence of Shakespeareans leaves a void that Oxfordians are only too eager to fill. It is a major reason for their success. For they welcome all and offer each a chance to discuss and explore both the man and his works, to participate actively in the discussion, rather than to be a student eternally – a passive, unengaged receptacle of information that is neither adequate nor satisfying. Indeed, Oxfordian meetings often offer opportunities to advance their education.
JC comment: I believe this argument also applies to the technical climate blogosphere.
As has Frank Wadsworth, the author of the first book about the controversy by an orthodox scholar, The Poacher from Stratford (1958). Thirty-five years later he wrote an article, “The Poacher Re-Visited,” for The Shakespeare Newsletter. In it he said:
It is important that we recognize the iconoclasts, particularly those of us who are teachers. But as Shakespeareans … we should not do it by visiting upon them the disdain of the past but by letting them speak freely for themselves … Our role should be not to suppress debate but to instruct students how to consider the Oxfordians’ (and others’) arguments carefully and thoughtfully. That exercise will make students not just more responsible as far as Shakespeare is concerned, but also wiser, more critical, more judicial, in dealing with the complex challenges they will face in the difficult decades which lie ahead of them.
We demystify authorship controversies, assassination conspiracies, theories of extra-terrestrial shindigs, even painful social demands, by letting their proponents speak out, not by censoring them. At least that’s what I thought when I wrote The Poacher from Stratford. And still do.
JC conclusion: No analogy is perfect, but I find the Sheakespeare controversy as desribed in Matus’ essay to provide a plethora of insights into the climate debate. The importance of public engagement is eloquently argued. While the academic Shakespearean scholars can arguably ensconce themselves in the ivory tower with little consequence, the situation is different for climate scientists. Policy decisions and even decisions regarding research funding are fueled by the public debate in the media and the blogosphere. The importance of public engagement in the climate debate is not sufficiently appreciated in the academy.